Plato the Anarchist

It is easy to confuse anarchism with nihilism.

The nihilist cares for nothing but destruction itself.  He derives strength ironically (and illogically) from the “meaning” of no meaning at all.  Owlman makes this perfectly clear, giving perhaps the clearest nihilistic statement in modern times.

The anarchist has a different approach.  His desire to destroy comes with reasonably good motives and a limited scope.  He really seeks not to destroy and create  better way of life.  One senses this in the music of Rage Against the Machine.  They have passion and plenty of excessive, destructive anger, but they plead for something real.  G.K. Chesteron’s brilliant The Man Who was Thursday touches on this as well, with the character of Sunday (slight spoiler alert) serving as the chief destroyer and chief unifier of the characters in the tale.

So it should not scare us too badly that a professor from Yale comes out in favor of anarchism.

James C. Scott’s book Two Cheers for Anarchism has a bark worse than its bite.  He believes that the state has some function to play, though never quite describes how.  He reveals himself as a strong critic of the industrial capitalistic modern world, much like Ivan Illich.  His critiques hit on something amiss about our predicament.  I wish he said more about about solutions.  In fairness, the road out of our situation is long and narrow.

How might one sympathize with a self-described anarchist?  We must first gain historical perspective and realize that the modern world looks very different from almost every other historical era.  The ordering of our lives occasioned especially by the industrial revolution make our lives much more regimented not by nature, but by our own creations, than any other time.

To work against this Scott urges us to abandon all centralized and regimented government solutions.  A simple example illustrates his point.  The Dutch tried an experiment with a notoriously dangerous and congested intersection.  They could have spent tens of millions and took several months to make an overpass.  The more obvious solution called for breaking up the intersection with more traffic lights and more centralized control.

Instead they opted for a traffic circle, with glorious results.  Accidents sharply declined and so did congestion. Traffic circles call for drivers to pay attention and make judgments, but Scott argues this is precisely why they work.  Governments need to get in the habit of giving over more initiative to the people and divesting themselves of institutional means of control, even with something as simple as traffic lights.  Plenty of other examples illustrate the same point, including

  • The superiority of the ‘randomness’ of nature to regimented/”scientific” planting of trees and gardens
  • The failures of housing projects vs. the concept of “neighborhoods.”
  • The unseen bonuses of shopping in neighborhoods as opposed to the ‘big box’ stores,

and so on.  His basic argument comes down to the concept of “small is beautiful.”

But he goes beyond this.  The “anarchist” part of the book involves his encouragement to small-scale kinds of disobedience to perverse means of establishing control.  He cites the recent example of French cab drivers suddenly finding themselves targeted for offenses of a particular traffic law.  They smelled not safety but money-making for the state as the motive.  So they banded together and decided that they would rigidly obey all the various traffic regulations.  Of course, traffic ground to a halt throughout French cities, the point being that

  • The practice of the people truly define what the law is, such as with speed limits, and
  • The state has stuffed the people full of useless and menacing regulations.  To enforce them all is impossible, to enforce most others would be arbitrary.

Scott laments when the natural actions and interests of the common man get co-opted by organizations.  Whatever their initial intentions, the imposed structure of unions, protest organizations, and the like, can never match the organic actions of the common man.  He admits that at times that state plays a useful function in giving an imprimatur, or proper force behind collective action, such as in the Civil Rights Movement.  But in general, a step towards centralization moves one closer to lifeless banality.

I also give Scott a lot of credit for recognizing that large-scale revolutionary action will make things worse.*  Every modern revolution created a more oppressive state than what it replaced:

  • After the American Revolution, British loyalists got a far worse treatment than any revolutionary against George III ever did before 1775.
  • The French Revolution made things far worse than the worst of the old regime
  • The Bolshevik revolution made Russia far worse than under the czars
  • Mao
  • Etc., etc.

We fix things, then in the steady and simple way of rejecting top-down government centralization, and looking for small ways in everyday life to assert the independence of organic communities and organic action.

So far so good, but while I realize the book merely wants to serve as an introduction, one issue in particular bothered me.

Scott states that, essentially, no possibility of a just society even existed until the political invention of modern democracy.  Ok . . . but . . . all of the worst examples of modern totalitarianism occurred in the name of the people.  It seems like democracy can, like nuclear power, give tremendous benefits but also cause tremendous damage.  Scott admits this from a structural standpoint, i.e., universal citizenship gives way to universal conscription, but misses something on the political side.

Scott also attaches himself too strongly to democracy itself, with the English Civil War as a case in point.  One can make a reasonable case that Charles I abused his power.  I think it much harder to justify his execution, done in the name of the law, in the name of the people, after a trial of dubious legality.  I know of no historian who argues that the Protectorate under Cromwell gave people more freedoms than Charles I.  In time, England begged Charles’ son to come back and rule as Charles II, and he returned to huge acclaim.  Again, it seems that the “Restoration” era under Charles II provided more tolerance and more room for localism than Cromwell and his more democratically minded Puritans.

The vision Scott argues for reminded me of G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc with “distributism.”  Scott decisively breaks with left-leaning academics who despise the “petty bourgeoise,” and instead looks for just the sort of limited land-ownership and localism that this class provides.  But the closest parallel to this kind of organization has historically only come from

  • Frontier societies, whose time may be sweet but is inevitably limited, as it waits for the rest of society to catch up
  • Societies on geographical fringes, like the eskimos, aborigines, jungle tribes, desert nomads, etc.
  • The Middle Ages

Maybe modern democracy is the cause, not the solution to the problems Scott decries.  Marx himself, I believe, believed that capitalism served the purpose of destroying local traditions, a necessary step towards worldwide revolution.  Maybe we need not blame democracy for all of the problems of the industrialized state.  But at the very least, sometimes non-democratic governments do a better job of preserving localism and traditions.

I wish Scott had tackled this.

Scott also may need to choose.  Does he prefer organic localism, or individual rights, democracy, etc.  The two do not always mix, so which does he prefer?  As an anarchist Scott blames the system.  But with democracies people generally get to create the system they want. If a democracy goes bad, then, blame the people, and not the system.  We get what we deserve.

The title of this post may seem absurd.  Some of us may think of Plato as the seed-bed of totalitarianism, a view that I understand but one that I think totally misses the point of his thought.  In a revealing passage in his dialogue The Statesman Plato suggests, along with Scott, that law itself is the problem, not necessarily bad laws.  He plays around with the analogy of weaving as statesmanship, and not legislating, as one might expect.  He tells the myth of the divine shepherd but realizes that, on a human scale, the analogy breaks down.

To resume:—Do you remember that we spoke of a command-for-self exercised over animals, not singly but collectively, which we called the art of rearing a herd?


Yes, I remember.


There, somewhere, lay our error; for we never included or mentioned the Statesman; and we did not observe that he had no place in our nomenclature.


How was that?


All other herdsmen ‘rear’ their herds, but this is not a suitable term to apply to the Statesman; we should use a name which is common to them all.


True, if there be such a name.


Why, is not ‘care’ of herds applicable to all? For this implies no feeding, or any special duty; if we say either ‘tending’ the herds, or ‘managing’ the herds, or ‘having the care’ of them, the same word will include all, and then we may wrap up the Statesman with the rest, as the argument seems to require.

In other words, Plato recognizes that the best shepherd is “hands-off” as much as possible.  No shepherd makes laws for his flock, the flock simply “is.” Later, The Stranger and Young Socrates distance themselves from the “sheep=people” analogy, and realize that an aspect of voluntary will must be included:


Then, now, as I said, let us make the correction and divide human care into two parts, on the principle of voluntary and compulsory.




And if we call the management of violent rulers tyranny, and the voluntary management of herds of voluntary bipeds politics, may we not further assert that he who has this latter art of management is the true king and statesman?


I think, Stranger, that we have now completed the account of the Statesman.

I think Scott would approve of this line of reasoning, and perhaps we can give a modest “two cheers” for Plato as a proto-anarchist.



*He never gets into why this is, however, and the question is worth pondering.  Why do popular revolutions create more totalitarianism than the governments they replace?




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